Vehicles and Middlemen: The Role of Lebanese Christians in Importing Western Ideas to the Ottoman East

In his novel al-Hiyam fi-Jinan al-Sham, published in 1868, Salim al-Boustany portrays the Lebanese capital, Beirut, as a center of learning exerting an almost magnetic pull on the young scholars and intellectuals of the Arab world. The novel’s protagonist, Suleiman, is said to have come to Beirut because “he had heard that it was advancing in the sciences and in civilization” (Boustany, 1868, p.699). His assessment was not far off. At the time, Beirut was a “hub of intellectual ferment” (Zachs & HaLevi, 2009) and a regional literary and cultural powerhouse, a fact which “found expression in the growing numbers of bookstores, printing presses, literary salons, and scientific societies” (Zachs & HaLevi, 2009) that proliferated in the city. It was also the home of leading intellectuals such as Boutros al-Boustany, Nasif al-Yaziji, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, and Father Youssef Shaykhu, and the site where they debated ideas in “passionate editorials and articles…in Arabic-language journals such as al-Jinan, al-Muqtataf, and al-Mashriq” (Hayek, 2016). Beirut was the “site of exception and a paragon of progress…a colonial space at the intersection of East and West…a space of interchange as well as a site of influence…[and] a producer and transmitter of ideas about modernity and progress” (Hayek, 2016) to the Arab nations of the East. It was precisely these cosmopolitan qualities that made the city so attractive to the young Arab intellectuals who flocked to its universities, missions, and schools. Beirut intellectuals such as Nasif al-Yaziji, Boutros al-Boustany, Shibli Shummayel, and Mikhail Mishaqa were instrumental in the process of introducing Western knowledge and ideas to Lebanese and Arab audiences and were leading figures in the Lebanese Nahda (Renaissance). How did they go about importing Western ideas to their homeland, and through it, to the rest of the Arab world? 

To attempt to answer this question without first understanding the socio-cultural context in which these intellectuals lived and worked would be an exercise in futility. Most significantly, the prominent role played by the literary and intellectual associations known as the jam’iyyat must be examined more thoroughly. Jam’iyyat, were a “ubiquitous feature of the social, literary, and intellectual landscape of [19th century] Beirut” (Edwards, 2019). They were ‘learned societies’ utilized by the emerging Beirut intelligentsia as a “social and civic space” (Edwards, 2019) where they could come together “to pursue humanist knowledge and liberal ideas associated with Western arts and sciences” (Edwards, 2019). Intellectuals discussed a wide array of topics that included “tradition and modernity, language and culture, education and politics” (Edwards, 2019) in these salons, and many of the Westernizing figures involved in the Nahda belonged to one or two of them. The paper will examine the influence of the jam’iyyat through a brief exposition of one such jam’iyya, Majmaa’ al-Tahdhib, or the Council of Refinement. 

Majmaa’ al-Tahdhib was a learned society comprising twelve Syrians and two Americans that was founded in Beirut by American Protestant missionaries in 1846. Along with other learned societies such as al-Jam’iyya al-Suriyya li iktisab al-Ulum wa al-Funun (The Syrian Society for the Acquisition of the Sciences and the Arts), Majmaa’ al-Tahdhib provided “an example of the confluence of educational, financial, and religious trends in Beirut” during the late Ottoman era (Edwards, 2019). According to Edwards (2019), it was so named because the term majmaa’ (council) had powerful religious connotations derived from the Christian al-majaami’ al-muqaddasa, or Ecumenical Councils, in which learned Christian scholars and bishops gathered “to elucidate the true faith and repudiate heretics” (Edwards, 2019)-an indicator of the Majmaa’ al-Tahdhib’s Protestant religious character. In fact, Edwards (2019) argues that the majmaa’ was more of an “ad-hoc seminary” (Edwards, 2019) than a society of arts and sciences, since its members often applied their training as Protestant missionaries travelling throughout Syria. Many of the majmaa’s members went on to become leading figures in the Nahda, “recognized for their roles in the educational, social, literary, and political discourses that shaped late Ottoman Beirut” (Edwards, 2019). Perhaps as a result of this Protestant influence, the theme of refinement surfaced repeatedly in the discourse of the Nahda, often “masquerading under the collocations al-tarbiya wal-taalim (education and edification) or al-taqaddum wal-tammadun (progress and civilization)” (Edwards, 2019). Indeed, Protestant missionaries taught that the manifestation of a modern, civil society depended on the moral, social, and intellectual improvement of its members. To that end, members of the majmaa’ championed the founding of schools, such as Boutros al-Boustany’s National School, whose goal was to “inculcate the masses with the civility, cultural sophistication, and knowledge” necessary to build a modern society and “promote the humanist virtues of knowledge’ (Edwards, 2019). Boustany’s National School was one of the first completely secular, non-confessional schools in Beirut. Its students studied the modern sciences of Europe as well as the language and literature of the Arabs. 

Boutros al-Boustany was born in 1819 to a Maronite family in the small Mount Lebanon village of Dibbiye, and was educated at the Maronite seminary in Ein Waraqa. An avowed secularist, he converted to Protestantism and taught at the Protestant mission school in Abey, authoring several dictionaries and textbooks and participating in the production of an Arabic translation of the Bible. He strongly advocated for the adoption of Western sciences and technology as a prerequisite for economic development, but was wary of accepting Western customs and values as is. He found much to praise as well as to criticize in Europe; a key tenet of his thought was the idea that the Near East could only revive “through knowledge of the thought and discoveries of modern Europe” (Hourany, 1983). Boustany was a staunch Syrian nationalist and is responsible for formulating many of the principles of Syrian nationalism. He encouraged the Arabs to relearn from Europe what Europeans had in ages past learned from them, stressing the importance of Western science and certain useful Western customs. He beseeched the denizens of his watan (country), Syria, to adopt the virtues of patriotism, religious toleration, and national unity. Underpinning these virtues was his belief that all religions were essentially the same: “we all, eastern and western, have one human nature, are descended from the first parents, and worship the same God” (Boustany, Khitab, pg 31). He stressed the importance of loving one’s homeland and all those who shared this homeland regardless of religion. His views on religion were primarily influenced by his conversion to the Protestant faith; having liberated himself from the closed, narrow religious belonging of the Maronites, he sought the same for others as well, and to instill in the Syrians a sense of the unity and nationhood vital for their revival. He unfavorably contrasted the religious fanaticism which had ravaged Mount Lebanon and Syria in light of the 1860 Druze-Maronite civil war with the values of religious toleration and common national identity prevalent in Europe. Boustany called for the separation of church and state, but encouraged Syrians to temper the adoption of Western political systems with a strong knowledge of and love for the Arabic language. “To revive the knowledge and love of Arabic was indeed half his life’s work,” writes Albert Hourany (1983), and to that end he published a journal, an encyclopedia, and a dictionary in Arabic. The school which he founded taught the European sciences in Arabic, and his linguistic efforts resulted in an Arabic that was modern and capable of transmitting the sciences of Europe to the Arab reading public. It is perhaps in this way, that of modernizing Arabic and making it capable of expressing simply yet effectively the knowledge and ideas of the West, that al-Boustany contributed most to the import of Western ideas to the East. 

Another Westernizing Nahda intellectual was Boutros al-Boustany’s son, Salim, author of al-Hiyam fi-Jinan al-Sham and of most of the articles published under his father’s name in the journal al-Jinan. His socio-political thought did not differ much from that of his father, indeed, he is widely perceived as having continued the elder Boustany’s intellectual legacy. Nevertheless, Salim is notable for certain unique concepts of his own, which he outlined in editorials such as “islah (reform), taqaddum (progress), al-Watan (Homeland), hurriya (freedom), istibdad (despostism), huquq al-insan (human rights), tamaddun (civilization), ta’assub (partisanship), Arab regeneration, foreign intervention and imitation, Ottoman unity, education, and the separation of church from state” (Zolondek, 1966). It is the latter concept, along with his thoughts on the nature of government and of its relationship to those governed, that this paper will shed light on. 

For the younger al-Boustany, the relationship of the government to the governed should be “as that of the soul to the body” (Zolondek, 1966). Furthermore, al-Boustany conceived of the government as an entity that should be established “by the people, for the people, and of the people” (Zolondek, 1966). He stressed that the “characteristics of the government should reflect the characteristics of the people” (Zolondek, 1966), an echoing of the Islamic hadith “Your leadership will be a reflection of you” (kama tukuna yuwalla aalaykum), and he further supplemented his point by stating that “whatever affects the government affects the people” (Zolondek, 1966). For al-Boustany, “reform, strength, and success can only be achieved through the cooperation between the people and the government” (Zolondek, 1966). 

Salim al-Boustany is also credited with the introduction of the concept of the ruh al-asr (Spirit of the Age), the notion that “for every age there is a spirit which arises from the political, social, and economic interactions of peoples…best reflected in the actions and ideas of its intellectual, political, and economic leaders” (Zolondek, 1966). Al-Boustany considered it part of good governance for political and economic leaders to conform to the Spirit of the Age, “for he who does not conform to the Spirit willingly will do so against his will” (Zolondek, 1966). His work was one of “the major vehicles” through which “the ideas and values… of the French Revolution entered into the Arabic political literature of the 19th century” (Zolondek, 1966).

Another leading Nahda intellectual was Shibli Shummayel. A doctor by trade, his thought was heavily influenced by Darwinism and scientific materialism. He studied at the Syrian Protestant College before seeking further medical training in Paris, and afterwards, he moved to Cairo, where he was a regular contributor to journals such as al-Muqtataf and Jurji Zeidan’s al-Hilal. He subscribed to that “great movement of the late nineteenth century for which science was more than a method of discovering regularities in the behavior of objects; it was the key to the secret of the universe, even a mode of worship” (Hourany, 1983). Indeed, the word “science” for him denoted not only the observation and analysis of natural phenomena but the comprehensive metaphysical system “constructed by Huxley and Spencer in England, Haeckel and Buchner in Germany, out of the cautious hypotheses of Darwin” (Hourany, 1983). Given the extent of Darwin’s influence on his thought, it is not surprising that his main contribution to Arabic literature was a translation of Buchner’s commentary on Darwin, with his “own notes and additions” (Hourany, 1983). 

The central concept of Shummayel’s thought was the unity of all being, or as he called it, tawhid, a term which he borrowed from Islamic and Druze theology. According to Shummayel, “all things are formed by spontaneous process from matter, which has existed from eternity and will exist forever; at each stage, the forms are more differentiated and complex than at the last” (Hourany, 1983). In addition, Shummayel conceived of the European sciences as the only valid basis for sound governance and law, and he claimed that “false sciences led to false laws and false systems of government” (Hourany, 1983). He derided theocracy and dictatorship as “not only wicked, but unnatural and false: theocracy because it raised some men above others and used spiritual authority to prevent the true development of the human mind, autocracy because it denied the rights of the individual” (Hourany, 1983). Shummayel believed that it was possible to build a system of sound laws and governance based on the natural laws of the universe, and he suggested that it was only this system that was capable of enabling “the universal process of development to continue and man to live in accordance with himself” (Hourany, 1983). His proposed system emphasized Darwinian scientific principles such as “survival of the fittest”, but it also emphasized the importance of cooperation for the collective benefit of society: “society functioned best when all its parts worked together for the good of the whole” (Hourany, 1983). He was a fierce critic of religion and clerical leadership and drew upon the ideas and principles of the Reformation and French Revolution to accuse religious leaders of “sowing discord between men” and impeding the improvement of society by preventing the essential separation between the religious and political spheres. Shummayel was also the first proponent of socialism in the Arab world, although his socialism differed markedly from orthodox Marxist socialism. Darwinism, scientific materialism, and the thought of Western scholars such as Spencer and Buchner were his key contributions to the Nahda.

None of these contributions, however, would have been possible without the medium of the periodical press. The periodical press provided the ideal vehicle not only for “revealing to the Arab mind the ideas and inventions of Europe and America” (Hourany, 1983), but also for demonstrating how the Arabic language can be made suitable for expressing these ideas and inventions, and its domination by Lebanese Christian intellectuals gave them “an influence over the Arabic reading public great although short-lived” (Hourany, 1983). It is ultimately what permitted them to spread the Western traditions in which they had been educated to their Arab Muslim brethren, and is therefore the real star of the show. The value of building and maintaining civilization as a good in itself, the role of science in building civilization, the universality of the European sciences and the need for the Arabs to accept and adopt them; all of these ideas would not have made their way to the Arab world were it not for the Christian intellectuals of Lebanon and Syria and their printed Arabic periodicals. As Albert Hourany (1983) put it, “it was largely through the works of these [Lebanese Christian] periodicals that such ideas later became commonplace”. 

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